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Interdependence in the Workplace

By a group of Cafh members


Everything we do has an influence on us, on those around us and on the world, whether we perceive it or not. The importance we give to this influence and to our way of life reveals who we are, not only to others but also to ourselves. Spiritual Life, chapter 11.

The teaching of Cafh stresses the need for all human beings to develop an attitude of interdependence, given the fact that we are simultaneously individuals and a part of a much greater whole. A group of members of Cafh in Los Angeles undertook to examine practical ways in which to develop this attitude in various spheres of our lives.

Given its importance to modern society, the theme of interdependence in the workplace is being studied in many forums today. For the purposes of organizing our reflections on our own individual work on this topic, we would like to present some of the key ideas that Stephen R. Covey shared in his book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.1

Habit 4: Think Win-Win

Genuinely strive for mutually beneficial solutions or agreements in your relationships. Value and respect people by understanding a "win" for all is ultimately a better long-term resolution than if only one person in the situation had gotten his way.

Habit 5: Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood
Use empathic listening, with the intent to understand, to be genuinely influenced by a person, which compels him or her to reciprocate the listening and take an open mind to being influenced by you. This creates an atmosphere of caring, respect, and positive problem solving.

These are but two of many habits that build interdependence in the workplace. We explored them as we confronted and resolved various challenges in our daily efforts to express the spirit of interdependence. Here is our account of what we discovered and practiced in our places of work over the course of a year.

Challenge: to realize that although we work hard to make meaningful contributions to our field of expertise, that contribution is not the result of independent effort

One of us deals with this challenge in her research.

In my work I try to discover the mechanisms that move cells to behave in one way or the other, or the pathways that signal cascades of reactions in different tissues of the body, or the genes that, when mutated, cause diseases in animals and humans. As I do this, I make the effort to keep in mind and be grateful to all those who have worked on these questions in the past, or who are now publishing their data on studies that have paved the way to what I'm doing today, or who communicated the things that did not work so that I could find what would lead to a solution. I try to acknowledge my interdependence with all these other investigators as well as with the technicians and students who, in one way or another, are helping me to obtain the longed for results. I have made it a habit to share the credit we get with the many researchers who preceded us. It is only through this interdependent effort that we can achieve progress, since no one researcher has all the ideas, knowledge or capability to carry out the complete work. Therefore, it is really important for me to be able to work together with others, learning from each other and helping each other, for the good of those who will receive the benefit of our hours and hours of study and dedication.

Challenge: to realize that, in interdependence, there are no authorities

This is a challenge that several of us working in different spheres wrestle with.

When collaborating with coworkers who lack the practice, wealth of experience, or background knowledge that I and others have, it is easy to assume that they should spend more time listening than speaking. When they bring up suggestions that have been tested and found impractical, it's easy to dismiss them and bring up what we feel would be effective. But, then I remind myself that these suggestions are being tried by new individuals who will have their own experiences and insightful outcomes to share if only they are allowed to do so.

In the field of education, particularly early childhood education, changes have occurred that I believe are not necessarily to the benefit of the students. But these are the standards that have been adopted, and coworkers who have been trained in these standards can help me to accommodate and enable the students under my care to be successful. Moreover, to quote or be attached to my own "authorities" would be to negate the fact that my coworkers are also educated professionals who have information and insights that can expand my understanding in this domain.

Imbued with the spirit of interdependence, we understand that nobody learns from just one person; we always learn from each other.

Challenge: individual styles

This is a hefty challenge! With limited time for discussion of critical topics in the workplace, it is easy to become impatient with individuals who want to bring up personal issues. But, for these souls, those issues are vital and so have a place in the group setting. By giving them some time and listening to them, we may be able to solve problems and achieve a good and healthy environment in the place we spend so many hours every day. We approach situations differently but we are all part of the same team.

The awareness of different styles, however, is not one-sided. Coworkers may also give us feedback on our own attitudes. One of us recounted her efforts to meet this challenge.

I also try to work in an interdependent way with the students I teach in classes or in the laboratory. I give them information that they need to assimilate, digest and make their own, but they teach me to be patient, to repeat the same thing as many times as necessary without getting bored or anxious and to be open to insights on how to interact with some of them. They also give me feedback on attitudes or habits I have and am not aware of. Indeed, many of the ideas that I develop in our studies grow out of their ideas or questions.

Just yesterday, one of them, after discussing at length parts of a manuscript that we were writing, said to me:

You are so stubborn and only write in the classical way, in the style you have always followed! Why can't we write using a freer style and explaining things with more realistic examples that people can relate to better? For example, why can't we say that the staining pattern of this compound resembles a string of pearls or a necklet surrounding the cells' nuclei?

After a minute of silence, I realized that I needed to be more humble. I accepted this student's input and we changed and/or incorporated several other statements into the paper. I learned that in order to maintain good relationships with others, I can't always do things the way I think is proper or the way I want. Instead of sticking to my "independent" way of acting and deciding on things, I have to become more interdependent.

When reflecting on this incident, I saw how it related to something that I had read by Hans Selye,2 a world-wide recognized endocrinologist who introduced the concept of stress in a medical context. He compared the results of an independent-achievement focus to

...the development of a cancer, whose most characteristic feature is that it cares only for itself. Hence, it feeds on the other parts of its own host until it kills the host-and thus commits biological suicide, since a cancer cell cannot live except within the body in which it started its reckless, egocentric development.

In other words, I need not only to acknowledge my self-centered behavior, which harms all my relationships, but also to change this behavior and work together with others. This interdependent attitude allows me to make the best use of my time and get good results. Moreover, instead of spending time trying to solve problems created by a lack of communication, I work on my relationships to make effective communication possible.

It's not simply a matter of interdependence between adult teacher and adult student. The same humility and recognition of individual styles are meaningful in connections between adult teacher and child student. A striking incident proving this point has remained with me throughout the years.

One of the learning challenges for young children, no matter how simplistic it may be, is standing in a line. It was a hot afternoon when the validation of interdependence in communication occurred.

A group of thirsty children were standing in line, but one of them kept pushing and shoving. I kept repeating "stand in line," "stand in line," but the student kept on pushing and shoving. Finally, exasperated, I turned to him and said, "Do you know what stand in line means????" He calmly replied, "Yes," raised his two hands in the shape of claws, and replied, "standing in lion."

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Yes, young or old, animal, plant or mineral, we are all interdependent! And, without allowing for space, time, and silence, we will find it difficult to work effectively together


1 Stephen R. Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (NY, Toronto: Simon and Schuster, 1990).

2 Hans Seyle, Stress without Distress (Philadelphia & New York: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1974), p. 65.